Still Dusted

Clinton, Nadler call for investigation of EPA response to 9-11

On Tuesday, local lawmakers requested an independent investigation into the way the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has responded to toxic dust--both the cleanup and the health effects--from the World Trade Center disaster.

Senator Hillary Clinton and Congressman Jerrold Nadler sent a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, asking the non-partisan agency to probe EPA’s “failure to establish an effective, science-based testing and clean-up plan” of 9-11-related contamination remaining downtown.

For nearly two years, dozens of people who live and work in and around Lower Manhattan have been locked in a debate with the EPA over a proposal to test for lingering trade center dust. With the help of an advisory panel convened in response to pressure from Senator Clinton, the EPA had proposed analyzing only limited samples from Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. Last month, the agency scaled back its test and cleanup plan even more, sparking furor among residents, office workers, and others who have been pushing it to do the right thing.

In their letter, Clinton and Nadler express “serious concerns that EPA’s response to September 11th has not adequately protected public health and environment.” The current plan – and the agency’s decision to dismantle the advisory panel—“repeats a familiar pattern in which the Agency has sought to downplay the potential risks and convey false assurances regarding World Trade Center contamination,” they wrote, before setting out five specific questions for the GAO to investigate.

The letter comes on the same day the EPA advisory panel holds its final meeting, where a coalition of activists intend to register their complaints over what they call an “unfair, unscientific, and unconscionable” proposal.

The full text of Clinton’s and Nadler’s letter follows:

December 13, 2005

The Honorable David M. Walker
U.S. Government Accountability Office
441 G Street NW
Washington, DC 20548

Dear Mr. Walker:

We are writing to respectfully request that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) immediately conduct an investigation into the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) failure to establish an effective, science-based testing and clean-up plan in response to the environmental contamination resulting from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York.

In August 2003, the EPA Inspector General (IG) released a report entitled “EPA’s Response to the World Trade Center Collapse: Challenges, Successes and Areas for Improvement.” This IG Report was very critical of the response by EPA and the White House Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) to the terrorist attack on New York City. The report made a number of recommendations to EPA, including how to correct flaws in the indoor cleanup program conducted by EPA in 2002-2003.

At the urging of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the EPA and CEQ agreed to establish an independent panel to reexamine some of the problems identified by the IG. This “World Trade Center Expert Technical Review Panel,” chaired by EPA and consisting of scientific experts as well as representatives from the community and labor groups, met regularly over a period of twenty months. During those meetings, the Panel made recommendations to the Agency about how to design a more scientifically sound testing and cleanup plan for indoor contamination resulting from the collapse of the World Trade Center. On November 29, 2005 the EPA released a final plan, which ignores many of the recommendations of the Panel, and instead would initiate a limited testing and cleanup program very similar to the 2002-2003 program that had been criticized by the IG. In addition, EPA announced its intention to prematurely dismantle the Panel.

The final EPA cleanup plan has serious flaws, and disregards recommendations of both the EPA IG and the Panel. In the plan, EPA abandoned commitments it had made to the Panel and the community to test in businesses and workspaces, and to test in expanded geographic areas exposed to World Trade Center debris, such as Brooklyn. In addition, the EPA plan stops any further work on developing a signature or other means of identifying World Trade Center dust, ignores “reservoirs” of contamination, and fails to adequately address building HVAC systems.

We have serious concerns that EPA’s response to September 11th has not adequately protected public health and environment. Unfortunately, EPA’s recent decision to dismantle the panel and initiate a flawed testing and clean-up program repeats a familiar pattern in which the Agency has sought to downplay the potential risks and convey false assurances regarding World Trade Center contamination, rather than developing a scientifically sound approach to assessing and reducing these risks.

Therefore, we respectfully request that the GAO initiate an investigation to answer the following questions:

1. Has the Agency implemented the recommendations of the August, 2003 IG report? If not, why not?

2. Which issues raised by the IG did the Panel consider, and what did the Panel recommend to address these issues?

3. Which recommendations made by the Panel and/or the community groups has the EPA adopted in its plan, and what is EPA’s rationale for adopting or rejecting these recommendations?

4. The EPA IG found that the White House interfered with EPA’s statements about air quality in the days following September 11, 2001. Is there evidence of any similar interference by Administration officials in the Panel process or the development of the current plan? Did Administration officials inject political considerations ahead of science or the recommendations of the Panel in the development of the plan?

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